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West Side 'heroes' recognized with first annual awards

John C. Starkey welcomes recent immigrants to Lafayette High School, where he is principal.

Stephanie Cole Adams organizes fun, free and healthy activities at Massachusetts Avenue Park.

And Buffalo Police Officers Jeanan Sharpe and Joe Szafranski visit community centers and schools to read, shoot hoops and talk with youth.

For this work and other efforts on the city's West Side, each of the four men and women were the recipients Sunday of the first annual Remarkable West Siders Awards, sponsored by West Side Community Services.

"We just looked around and saw people doing neat things and we wanted to recognize them," said Betsy Murphy, board chair of the organization on Vermont Street that formed in 1974 to work with everyone from kids to seniors.

Starkey, an Amherst native, moved into the neighborhood filled with refugee and Hispanic families not long after being named principal of Lafayette in late 2015. He was one of Superintendent Kriner Cash’s first recruits from outside to turn around one of Buffalo’s struggling schools.

"I felt like it was recognition of the hard work the team is doing over at Lafayette," he said of the award during a luncheon in Resurgence Brewing Company on Niagara Street. "It was something I was looking forward to accepting, not just for me but on behalf of our whole school community."

Just this week a young woman enrolled at Lafayette after arriving from El Salvador with her mother and little sister, he said.

"They're just so happy to be here in Buffalo," he said. "To them, it's kind of like having arrived to the promised land. It energizes you when you're in the day-to-day grind of things to see a kid and family who feel like this is it, they've made it. It gives you that energy to figure out more ways to try and help the students and their families."

Adams, an attorney, works in her spare time to ensure there's a constant variety of activities in the small neighborhood park, including yoga, croquet and music, in an initiative she calls "Blanket the Park."

"We're really happy if we get four people at an event. It's not about large scale," she said.

She credited PUSH Buffalo with turning around the park by adding a new playground and basketball court and grading the soil.

Now, she's looking for musicians to perform short acoustic sets this summer "just to get people using the park, because for a long time people were afraid to go into the park. We're just trying to set a new normal where it's a useful, healthy greenspace for folks."

Sharpe and Szafranski both started with the Buffalo Police Department in 2008 and recently volunteered to serve as community police officers in the Central District.

"We go in and show a different level of policing -- interacting with the children, playing with the children, talking to them one-on-one," said Sharpe. "We answer questions they normally would not be able to stop an officer in the street to ask."

The partners eat lunch with students, bring the K-9 unit in for visits and attend Block Club meetings. For some youth, it may be their first positive interaction with police, said Szafranski.

"Jeanan and I make a great partnership as a white male police officer and a black female police officer," he said. "When we walk into centers, young men and women look at us and they're surprised because we interact very well with one another, whether we're playing basketball with kids or having a roundtable discussion about police issues they may have."

Three teenagers were also honored Sunday: Sophia Bahati Adam and Gabriel Cohen, who work at the Massachusetts Avenue Project, and Omar Awil Farah, who works with H.E.A.L. International's youth enrichment department.

"In our everyday lives we look around the community and we see amazing people doing amazing things and they don't get recognized for it," Murphy said." So we thought, 'Well, they're heroes and they're very remarkable.'"

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